Only four songs from his two stripped-down albums of the past three years made it into his two-hour show Saturday, but the approach on those albums, “12 Songs” and “Home Before Dark,” is permeating the bulk of Diamond’s current world tour. Those releases, produced by Rick Rubin, are built from the ground up with minimal decorations and sufficient trademark declarations, which translate — when the hits are added — into a hot October night.
In his ’80s and ’90s shows it was likely that Diamond would proffer entertainer over songwriter and singer. But with a reduction in the sing-song balladry on this tour, Diamond has found a smart surface to stand on and still be all things to all people. He has not wholly shed the skin of singer-as-salesman, yet he has found places to let a natural breeziness play a key role in the delivery of songs.
Contrast two of his strongest moments of reflection, “I Am … I Said,” a No. 4 single from 1971, and “Hell Yeah,” one of the stand-out tracks from 2005’s “12 Songs.” He sang the former as a belter, over-emoting and overselling the song, extending syllables rather than maintaining the conversational tone of the original. Overuse of the synthesizer did not help matters.
“Hell Yeah” was more reflective of the concert overall, its theme of a man staring down time, mortality and his past with a defiant attitude, being performed with attention to the dynamic range of the recorded version. It’s the last song of the main set and in some ways the strongest — this is Neil Diamond telling his fan he’s in this game to the bitter end.
A similar contrast could be drawn between the stark, new track “Pretty Amazing Grace” and the overly sentimental “Brooklyn Roads.” That both are in the same set is testimony to Diamond’s ability, at 67, to dig deep as a songwriter rather than walk paths he manicured in the ’70s. This is a glitter-free show that balances the artistic triumphs of the ’60s (opener “Holly Holy,” “You Got to Me,” “Solitary Man”) with his wizened later work and the crowd-pleasers (“Sweet Caroline,” “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” in duet with Linda Press, “America” featuring a film of New York arrivals), a 25-song bonanza that satisfies on all levels.
Diamond boasts that his band has been with him for 30 years, but he has never allowed his four-piece horn section to assume as central a role as they have in this show. They enhance numbers such as “Kentucky Woman” and “Cherry, Cherry” — well executed but padded out to include two solos from each band member — and, along with the two keyboardists, add a soulfulness to lesser-known songs such as “Don’t Go There” and “Done Too Soon.”